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Genetic Diversity: Do Common Owls Actually Represent Unique Species?

Nov 11, 2015 10:09 PM EST

The identification of common owls may be outdated, according to a recent study. Researchers from the Universidad de Los Lagos, Chile, took a closer look at Common Barn and the Short-eared Owl populations from southern Chile and compared them to relatives from other geographic areas. In doing so researchers found both species may be more genetically diverse than previously thought.

Previous taxonomical work of the two animals may be in need of revision simply because more advanced methods are available today. This includes genetic sequencing of the mitochondria, which produces energy in cells. Researchers used that type of sequencing in the recent study led by Dr. Nelson Colihueque, of the Universidad de Los Lagos.

So what did they find? Dr. Colihueque suggest that the widely spread populations of Common Barn and the Short-eared Owls each may actually represent a new species, according to a news release.

Most information regarding the two owl species is based on diet, habitat range and conservation status. This is where previous studies have overlooked valuable genetic data and relied solely on physical similarities to identify individual owls.

Instead, the Chilean researcher concluded there is a significant genetic divergence among both species and their widespread relatives. For example, researchers specifically compared Common Barn Owls found throughout parts of South America, North America, Northern Europe and Australasia to identify genetic differences.

"In the case of the Common Barn Owl, the existence of geographic barriers to gene flow among populations on different continents is to be expected, and this in combination with its non-migratory or short-distance migratory behavior, should contribute to promote the genetic divergence," authors explained in the study. 

Common Barn Owls are characterized by their bright white face, chest and belly. Unlike other owls, Common Barn Owls do not hoot. Instead, they make an eerie, raspy call. The birds are also very sly predators.

While researchers have revealed widespread owls have more diverse genetic histories, they noted further research is required in order to clarify the taxonomic identification of both owl populations.

Their study was recently published in the journal ZooKeys.

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